Steven Soderbergh’s Che is an effort to force the viewer to form their own opinion about the feted Argentine-Cuban revolutionary
Che: Part One
2009, Picasso/Laura Bickford/Morena/Section Eight/Telecinco/Wild Bunch
126 minutes (Spanish with English subtitles)
Reviewed by Georgina Jiménez
LATAMROB rating: ****
STEVEN SODERBERGH’S highly anticipated film, Che, is like the revolution itself – stalking the hills waiting to descend for historical meaning to be then imposed upon it.
But that really is the point: if Che is anything, it is an effort to force the viewer to form their own opinion about the controversial Argentine-Cuban revolutionary.
In the spirit of the guerrilla, and true to Soderbergh’s action style, the movie holds a rusty carbine to your temple and barks: join the cadres of the great warrior or forever stand on the sidelines scratching your peasant head.
While that is a questionable strategy for a mainstream cinema audience, one that has opened a front of criticisms about this film as broad as that at Santa Clara – Che’s greatest battleground – it does make for daring cinema.
Of course, this point was largely lost on the movie’s legion of bilious Batista-esque US critics stuck in a time warp that forbids them from escaping the mental brothels of 1950s Cuba. As if reading from hymn sheets handed out to them by Fulgencio himself and his noxious Miami exiles, they intoned a predictable litany of deconstructions: tragic, doomed, non-dramatic, diminished, misguided, drawn out – observations that were largely superficial and grounded in their sad Hollywood reality. Perhaps no one ever told them about historical materialism – or even just the crisis of capitalism.
Soderbergh is perhaps best known through the Ocean series of movies for his smooth main character’s uncanny ability to blow open safes and escape unscathed. In this case, we will never really know if the director’s gamble turns out to have been as audacious as that of his subject but the fact remains that Che: Part One is a mesmerising, confident and intellectuality stimulating reinvention of the bio-pic that at least matches previous cinematic attempts to mine this character’s significance. Neither hagiography nor without its flaws, the movie is nonetheless a triumph of determination for a director and actor who have successfully produced a commercial epic about one of the most despised figures in US official history.
Che opened in New York City as a single film in two parts with an intermission – at 4 1/2 hours one of the longest movies since Gone with the Wind – but will screen as separate films from this month. For most of us, then, Che is in fact two films, only the first of which is reviewed here. For Soderbergh, the format of two sections – inspired by Vincent Cassell’s French Public Enemy – resolved key creative issues. As a result, Part One is more classic war film, taking us from Che’s induction into the guerrilla core in Mexico City through to his exploits in the Sierra Maestra mountains; and Part Two is psychologically darker and more forbidding, taking us to his death in the ill-fated Bolivian campaign.
Yet both, according to the director, mimic the voice of the two diaries of Che they are based on at either end of his revolutionary career: Reminiscences of the Cuban Revolutionary War and The Bolivian Diary.
Benicio del Toro is exceptional as Che, despite those hints of a Puerto Rican accent, evoking the charisma of a figure to whom have been attributed almost superhuman powers of endurance and insight. He captures well Guevara’s revolutionary puritanism and his disciplinarian and authoritarian tendencies alongside his vulnerabilities – his asthma and occasional aloofness. Demian Bichir’s rather neutral Fidel Castro makes this easier, but possibly because this was his brief and he has fulfilled it loyally. He takes second place like he does in much of the literature about the Cuban Revolution.
If the most-highlighted flaw in Soderbergh’s most ambitious film is that he has declined to make a statement by choosing not to explore the inner life of his subject – those emotional and psychological reference points that allow us to understand more fully this complex character – then Del Toro’s interpretation of this Latin American Spartacus taking on the Empire is ultimately favourable.
But snipes that Soderbergh’s excessive focus on everyday guerrilla life misses the big picture are not entirely fair, given the intercut mono scenes from Che’s appearance at the United Nations in 1964 and cleverly interwoven dialogue that offers tidbits of his ideological position. The technique of using flashbacks through an interview with Che instead of using a linear narrative is a device to allow the viewer to draw his or her own conclusions. True to his Christ-like status on the left, we hear Che reminding us that the revolutionary’s greatest attribute is love for his fellows – lines taken from his treatise on the socialist “New Man”. We also hear snippets of his military musings, which seem as relevant if not more so today than ever before: if a force of men know why they are fighting and what they are fighting for, it can make a simple zero-sum quantitative assessment of military strength meaningless.
That said, the director could have made much more of US hostility to the Cuban regime, which Soderbergh gives a broad-brush treatment when compared with the detail employed in depicting Che’s military exploits. It seems that after years of passive acquiescence in an unjust status quo, the US public may be ready to start asking questions, although it remains hard even today for them to understand their state’s imperial pretensions in Latin America. Washington’s loyal support for the repugnant Batista could and should have been a more prominent theme in the movie.
Weaknesses and criticisms aside, Soderbergh’s Che will stand the test of time and is a captivating contribution to that process of historical reassessment that will inevitably occur in a year which marks the 50th anniversary of the Cuban Revolution and, one hopes, will witness political transformations in the US that hint of a favourable change in relations with the island at last.
Georgina Jiménez is a freelance Mexican writer